China's Central Asia Dilemma

P. Stobdan,Res. Fellow,IDSA


The rapid disintegration of the Soviet empire, particularly in the aftermath of the abortive coup in Moscow, had put the Chinese conservative leadership in grave problem. Their major apprehensions ranged from ideological and political problem to practically deal with the security challenges along China's northern frontier provinces. China not only despised the unfolding events in the former Soviet Union, but also remained cautious about the possible direct negative implications for the country at both international and domestic fronts.1 The Soviet collapse came as a vindication of the tough line followed by the Western world against China in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. For Beijing, the demise of the Soviet Union and the dramatic transformation in Eastern Europe also meant China's ideological isolation in the international arena and an end to its ability to play off Washington against Moscow. Among other things, it was then argued by many that China will lose its international options to check Taiwan's growing status in the world. The strategic emergence of Central Asia and the rise of Japan in the face of the superpower's retreat were also envisaged as long time challenges for China.

The more alarming development for Beijing had been the fear of rising ethno-religious nationalism in breakaway Central Asian republics spilling over into China's restive Xinjiang province. Chinese authorities had to tighten their control over numerous ethnic movements in China's borderlands in the West and North, including Uighurs, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Mongols even before the collapse of the Soviet Communist order. Given the grave consequences, Chinese response to the developments in the Soviet Union remained cautious describing them as "internal affairs." China's official line was that it would "respect" the choice made by the people in these countries. However, Chinese authorities remained perturbed with the events and took a defensive posture and even adopted a more strident tone to forestall any adverse effect on China. Chinese Vice-President, Wang Zhen's speech in a gathering of People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops during his inspection tour of military installations in Xinjiang, where he told the troops to "unswervingly follow the socialist road" was viewed as a response by China to the Soviet developments. Although not admitted by Beijing, the Soviet collapse did encourage ethnic movements in Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang and tension between the Hans and ethnic population suddenly increased. Particularly in Xinjiang, the situation became more volatile since 1991 and the local authorities admitted the emergence of hostile forces, subversion, and sabotage in the region. China deployed more than 200,000 troops to suppress the Islamic uprising. Since then, there has been periodic unrest including the incidents of terrorist bombing and shooting. Chinese officials repeatedly claimed that dissident Islamic movement was receiving ideological and material support from the Islamic world routed through Pakistan and Afghanistan. On more than one occasion, Chinese authorities had to close down the Karakoram highway linking Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) in Pakistan with Xinjiang to stop Islamic infiltration. Ironically, the Chinese found that most of the smuggled weapons were of their own country, originally supplied by China to the Afghan Mujahideens.

However, as the situation in the former Soviet Union began to unfold, Beijing was left with little option but to accept the reality and deal with the situation pragmatically. But in the rapidly changing political environment, things started to alter in China's favour. Beijing was more than happy to know the decision by Russian Federation and Kazakhstan that they would respect agreements between China and the former Soviet Union regarding troops reduction and border resolution. Moscow's decision to sell China advanced weapon system underscored the point that Russia would not view China as a security threat. Contrary to the earlier scenario, China found itself in a totally different security environment. Instead, the Soviet collapse and the events associated in the aftermath of the Cold War have been viewed as a net strategic gain for China.

Firstly, China found that the formidable superpower and its principal military and ideological competitor, which since mid-1960s had tried to encircle China with the help of India, Vietnam, Mongolia and Afghanistan, as well as to destabilise China's periphery had suddenly disappeared. Moreover, Russia's westward orientation to deal with security issues, its preoccupation with the internal political and economic crises significantly diminished the Chinese threat perception of Russia. Russia's decision to reduce its armed forces, the strategic nuclear weapons and the Pacific fleet by 40 per cent, as well as Kazakhstan's commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons on its soil had tilted the military balance in China's favour. China's Central Military Commission's (CMC) annual report in 1991 did not mention Central Asian republics as posing any direct challenge to China's national security.2

The decline in Russian power has not only improved China's security position, but also offered a "breathing space" to review its military programme. Chinese planners instead, have started thinking about how to take advantage, at least in the short term, from the Soviet break up. While casting aside ideological issues, Beijing was quick to get into doing business with Russia's military firms. Since 1991, China has made massive advanced military acquisition including the Su-27 fighters and S-300 high altitude air defence missiles from Russia. Along with the weapon technology, China has also bought Russian skills and expertise to upgrade and modernise their own military industry.

On the Central Asian front, the emergence of several new neighbours in its vulnerable north-west was a matter of concern to the Chinese. Their anxiety was compounded by the increasing instability in Central Asia, particularly following the outbreak of civil war in Tajikistan and ethnic conflict in Uzbekistan's Farghana Valley . A relatively stable region during the Soviet rule, China's main concern in Central Asia was the rise of Islamic ideology filling in the vacuum created by the Soviet retreat. Beijing initially did perceive that the rising ethno-Islamic solidarity will spread across to influence Chinese minorities and in fact, undertook defensive measure to suppress separatism in Xinjiang. However, as the euphoria died down, the threat of Islam for China also started to diminish. In a conversation with the author, Chinese experts on minorities told in 1992 that China as a civilisation has a longer experience of dealing with multi-ethnic problems, particularly with Muslims who have lived within the Chinese system for centuries. They further argued that China does not feel particularly threatened by Islam as it has cordial relations with the Islamic world, specially with important countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. It would be pertinent to note that Chinese authorities took Iranian President Rafsanjani to Urumchi, the capital of Xinjiang in 1992, in order to legitimise Chinese control over the region.

Beijing was, in fact, too happy to know that the governments of Central Asia themselves were becoming hostile to the rising Islamic opposition and taking tough measures to prevent Islamic fundamentalism penetrating into the region. Therefore, instead of Central Asia becoming a threat, the Chinese found a commonality of interests with the new states as their weaker armed forces too were engaged in countering trans-border Islamic fundamentalism. The Chinese leaders were relieved that neither Islamic fundamentalism nor pan-Turkic nationalism is going to threaten China.

On the diplomatic front, China adopted a realistic approach and recognised the independence of Central Asian states alongwith seven other former Soviet republics in December 1991. In January 1992, China signed separate communiques on the establishment of diplomatic relations with five states. Beijing has been prudent enough to get the Central Asian endorsement of China's territorial integrity (Xinjiang as a part of China) as well as its "one China policy" (ruling out recognition of Taiwan) as a precondition for diplomatic recognition. In February, March and May 1992, Beijing received the leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Khirghistan respectively and signed cooperation agreements in various fields. Beijing also showed them China's prosperous free economic zones and the achievements made by China under socialism. Although, these leaders ignored the ideological aspects, they did not overlook China's economic achievements. In fact, Presidents of Khirghistan and Kazakhstan frequently talked about adopting China's model of market economy. Similarly, the President of Tajikistan also visited Beijing in March 1993 and signed a number of bilateral agreements with Chinese leaders. China was also quick to draw economic profit from the new geopolitical situation. As things settled down, China began to formulate an ambitious Central Asia policy of its own. Beijing has been adopting a more offensive economic diplomacy towards Central Asia with the aim of stabilising the region politically, as well as to push China's own interests. In fact, as the competition among powerful countries for influence in Central Asia has continued, China has been successful in commercially penetrating into the region, responding and fulfilling their immediate economic needs, specially the consumer goods requirements of these countries. Beijing realised that it could offer major trade opportunities as well as capital and technology to weak Central Asian states. Unlike others, the geographical contiguity had made China's trading with Central Asia much easier.

By 1991, China had strengthened its trade ties and viewed Central Asia as a promising economic market. China's new war of "economic influence," after having succeeded along the Myanmar borders, was replicated in its northern borders with Russia, Mongolia and Central Asian states. Indeed, given the strategic location of Xinjiang, the Chinese central authorities have viewed the entire northwest region as an important growth centre. In 1992, Beijing not only doubled Xinjiang's annual allocation but also gave the province the right to conduct preferential trade policies as well as created free economic zones, earlier given only to the coastal provinces. Consequently, Xinjiang was converted into a new prosperity zone that would attract investment from Hong Kong, Taiwan as well as domestic investment from coastal provinces. With the opening of eight "ports" (rivers, airports and railheads) the towns like Yining, Taching and Bole were approved as "border open cities." Besides, Horgos, Alataw Pass and Tuerdat lead to Kazakhstan and Khirghistan. Central authorities in Beijing have also secured US$150 million loan from the World Bank to build a high grade Turfan-Urumchi-Dahuangshan highway linking various cities and countries in its northwest region. In more than one way, China has been trying to prove that the economic standard of Xinjiang Muslims is better than those in Central Asia. In 1993, 400,000 more Central Asians visited Urumchi to shop. The Chinese authorities have, in fact, claimed that Kazakhs who migrated from China in the 1950s are returning to China.

Since 1992, China has been organising trade fair in Urumchi and other towns for promoting trade and economic ties with the neighbouring states. Beijing has also revived the ancient "Great Silk Route" and used the metaphor to open up China's northern land border for direct links with Europe and the Middle East via Central Asia. A number of Eurasian highways, including rail and pipeline construction are being planned which will ensure a long-term role for China in Central Asia. The opening up of the trans-Eurasian railroad through Central Asia in 1990 and the linking of Almaty and Urumchi by railroad in 1992 has brought in a dramatic change in the Sino-Central Asian frontiers.3 The triumphal tour by Prime Minister Li Peng to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Khirghistan in April 1994 gave a new impetus to China's campaign for its Silk Route promotion. Premier Li, while resurrecting the Silk Road, also reached agreements with Turkmenistan and others on oil production and pipeline constructions.4

China's growing interest in Central Asia has been viewed as a strategic challenge by Russia. There have been several cases in which Moscow had expressed displeasure over Central Asian independent policies towards China. Russia saw to it that China does not get into bilateral defence treaties with these states. Moscow also insisted that discussion on border disputes, troops reduction, and confidence-building measures with Central Asian states should have "joint delegation" consisting of Russian representatives. The Russian media also attacked China's dubious methods of influencing Central Asia, particularly opposing the forays of Chinese traders settling in Kazakhstan and marrying Kazakh women. Privately, Russians, Central Asians and the Mongols believe that China is in search of lebensraum.

On the one hand, China has played its diplomatic card carefully, so as not to arouse fear of its hegemony. Beijing did not give an impression that it was competing with Russia while using economic leverage in Central Asia. China has upheld Russian interest, particularly its post-Soviet security arrangement within the CIS framework in Central Asia. In fact, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen went out of his way to distance himself from any suspicions of wanting to play a more assertive role in the former republics. However, China did not stop quietly building up its own assets and influence through trade and transport links. It is important to note that China did not try to get into an oil deal with Central Asian states until the Western companies, particularly the American ones challenged Russian interests in the region. In an unprecedented move in June 1997, China's National Petroleum Company (CNPC) outbid US oil companies Texaco and Amoco and won a major oil concession, taking a 60 per cent share of Kazakhstan's richest Aktyubinsk oilfield by investing four billion US dollars. Again in August 1997, CNPC won a tender giving it 60 per cent share of developing Kazakhstan's second richest Novy Uzen oilfield by investing US$400 million out of a total projected investment of US$1.3 billion. The CNPC paid Kazakhstan signature bonus of US $372 million for both the projects. China is also planning to build a 2,000 mile-long pipeline across Xinjiang at the cost of $3.5 billion to carry oil and gas to Chinese industrial cities, as well as for exports to Japan. China's major investment in energy sector has significantly helped Kazakhstan to overcome acute periodic shortages of foodstuffs and consumer goods. It is expected that China's enormous inroad into Central Asia, particularly its involvement in what is shaping up as the last great oil rush of the 20th century will have great geopolitical implications in the years to come. Like in the past, during the Han, T'ang, Mongol, and Chi'ng dynasties, China is once again wielding influence upon the steppe zone of the Eurasian heartland. China's landward orientation assumes significance in the face of declining Russian strategic proximity with India. It is also significant that countries, like Kazakhstan, are talking about Central Asia as a bridge between Europe and Asia, thereby establishing closer ties with China as an essential balance to offset pressure and renewed assertion from Russia in the future.

As regards bilateral relations, China, during Premier Li Peng's visit to four Central Asian states in 1994, proposed four principles as ground rules for promoting ties between them. These included: promoting peaceful coexistence; promoting economic prosperity; non-interference in their internal affairs; and respecting their territorial integrity and sovereignty. Apart from political contacts there has been a phenomenal growth in trade volume between China and Central Asian countries. Areas of cooperation range from scientific and technological cooperation to setting up of hundreds of joint ventures in the field of electronics, consumer goods, textiles, communications, transport and personnel exchanges. China has offered credit worth US$5.7 million to Khirghistan, and worth US$5 million to Tajikistan in yuan to buy Chinese goods. China and Kazakhstan have signed 40 bilateral documents during the President's third visit to Beijing in September 1995.5

China had a territorial dispute with Russia since late 17th century. During the period of rift between China and the Soviet Union, Chinese maps showed parts of Khirghistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan as far as Lake Balkash, as well as the Pamirs, within the borders of China.6 China claimed that Tsarist Russia had annexed thousands of square miles from China in the 1880s. In recent times, China and the former Soviet Union had resumed border talks in the eastern and western sectors. The process of negotiations started in 1986 and continued after the break up of the Soviet Union. In the Western sector of the Sino-Soviet frontier, Russia shares only a 56 km stretch and the rest of 2805 km in Central Asia include 1533 km with Kazakhstan, 858 km with Khirghistan and 414 km with Tajikistan. The topographical complexities had made the demarcation of border difficult in the past. Since 1992, the negotiation on border issues was resumed with a delegation jointly sent by Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Khirghistan and Russia, although Russia preferred to solve the issues on a bilateral basis. A breakthrough was made in April 1996 when leaders of China, three Central Asian states and Russia met in Shanghai and signed an agreement on confidence-building measures along the eastern borders. Following this, the five nations signed a demilitarised pact in Moscow in April 1997, regularising their frontiers and limiting troops deployment within 100 km of their common borders: 3,810 tanks for Russia and Central Asian states, 3,900 for China until the year 2020.

However, everything is not fine on the Sino-Central Asian frontier. Although, efforts are being made to resolve territorial problems, there still remain several contentious issues and the Central Asians have reasons to be worried about Chinese long-term intentions. Firstly, they are naturally most concerned about China's massive military power, its nuclear weapons and testing sites in the Turfan-Kuerla region. In Kazakhstan, several public demonstrations were held protesting Chinese nuclear testing, as they have large scale ecological and security bearing on Central Asia. There also remains the problem relating to alteration of river flow at several points.

Similarly, China is still acutely aware of pulls resulting from the transitional changes in Central Asia. Western analysts particularly, do not believe that China will ever remain immune to the forces of resurgent nationalism and religious fundamentalism in next door Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. In fact, support for Xinjiang Islamic movements from Pakistan has increased over the years. Pakistan's Jamaat-e-Islami has become one of the several fundamentalist groups that has been giving regular arms training to militants from Xinjiang, creating strong embarrassment for Islamabad. Since 1992, China has been asking Pakistani authorities to prevent such activities. Hundreds of Uighurs, who were earlier trained by Pakistanis and Afghan Mujahideens during the Afghan war are unable to return to China and are presently believed to be fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Following the killing of 22 people in Baren in 1992, Xinjiang authorities closed its link road to Pakistan for several months. After the emergence of the Taliban, separatist activities in Xinjiang have intensified. China has blamed the militia and also a Lahore based group, the Tablik-e-Jamat, headed by Pakistan's former ISI chief for fomenting unrest in the region. Last year, Xinjiang officials claimed to have captured 2723 kg of explosives, 4100 kg dynamite, 604 illegal firearms and 31,000 rounds of ammunition. Authorities in Xinjiang pledged to build a "great wall of still" against the fundamentalists. In August 1997, China also started fencing its border with Pakistan around the Khunjrab pass. Pakistan acknowledged in February last year that a group of religious preachers had visited Xinjiang. It is reported that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, during his February 1998 visit to China, has given a firm assurance to Beijing that Islamabad will take measures to stop fundamentalists infiltrating into China. Beijing was also reluctant to allow the construction of highway from northern Pakistan to Central Asia via China's territory. On account of the same fear, Beijing has made a subtle change in its position on Kashmir, not directly supporting the Pakistani stand.

The Muslim unrest in Xinjiang has forced Kazakhstan to take hard measures to ban parties and activists supporting ethnic Uighurs in their bid for an independent Uighuristan. Kazakhstan has some 200,000 Uighur people and many of the organisations supporting the movement have their offices in Almaty. During the visit by Chinese Defence Minister, Chi Haotian to Almaty in June 1996, and Kazakh Defence Minister, Muhtar Alteibaev to Beijing in October 1997, the Kazakh government had assured Beijing of its efforts to combat Muslim unrest. Like Kazakhstan, other Central Asian states have also affirmed their opposition to the spread of fundamentalism. China remains unsure about how the dynamic surge of ethno-religious forces, particularly in the face of instability in Afghanistan and Tajikistan will take shape in the future. Presently, Central Asian attitudes on secessionism coincide with China's, because all the present rulers in the these states are the same old communist people. Moreover, these states are too preoccupied with their own political and economic difficulties. Besides, the activism of the US in Central Asia and also over the Kashmir issue have been a source of anxiety for the Chinese. China's shift in its position over Kashmir has been a sequel to Washington's move of raising diplomatic activism over Kashmir vis-a-vis India. Similarly, the military exercise, Centraxbat-97, in which 500 paratroopers from the 82nd airborne division of the US flew 19 hours and 12,320 kilometers to join a week-long exercise in Central Asia, as a part of the NATO sponsored "partnership for peace" has been viewed by Beijing as the US containment of China and a source of great security concern. China's concern in Xinjiang is not only about the ethnic and religious upsurge among the minorities but also about the protection of the region's 30 billion tonnes of proven petroleum, which are critical to China's energy security. Over the years, foreign oil companies have been exploring more oil in Tarim basin. China also can not afford to loosen its hold over the situation in Xinjiang, as it may encourage the Tibetans and the Mongols to intensify their struggle for independence. In the recent years, there have been strong efforts towards closer coordination among various nationalist forces in China. Taiwan has been seen to be active in forging a closer relationship with the Chinese dissidents, Uighurs and the Tibetans. In India too, the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama has strongly condemned Chinese repression in Xinjiang in February 1997, following a series of bomb blasts in the restive region. It is also reported that the Tibetans and the Uighurs have reached an understanding more than ever before to fight for their common struggle against the Chinese regime. Although China seems to be having enough confidence in quelling any threat emanating from nationalism or religious fundamentalism and challenging its territorial integrity, the destabilising pulls in its northwest frontiers will continue to pose enough political and other kinds of obstacles in China's quest to achieve superpower status in the coming century.



1. John W. Garver, "The Chinese Communist Party and the Collapse of Soviet Union," The China Quarterly, no. 133, March 1993, pp. 96-110.

2. Guocang Huan, "The New Relationship with the Former Soviet Union," Current History, September 1992, p. 254. The new Russian President Yeltsin's pronouncements were viewed by Chinese leaders not only as being anti-Communist but also as being hostile to the leadership in Beijing. On several occasions, Chinese humiliated Yeltsin and supported Gorbachev with regard to changes in the former Soviet Union. In 1989, the Chinese Communist Party General Secretary, Jiang Zemin refused to meet Yeltsin in Moscow.

3. Ross H. Monro, "China's Waxing Spheres of Influence" Orbis, Fall 1994, pp. 590-605.

4. See Summary of World Broadcasts, SWB/FE/1978 G/1, April 22, 1994.

5. For details see Beijing Review, October 2-8, 1995.

6. Michael Freeberne in Charles A Fisher ed., Essays in Political Geography (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1968), p. 203.